No better sequence could describe the scene in St. Louis than the one that occurred with 47 seconds left in the first round contest between the No. 2 seed Michigan State Spartans and the No. 15 seed Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders.
Coming out of a timeout and trailing 81-76, Eron Harris turned the ball over to MTSU’s JaQawn Raymond, who bobbled the ball to Darnell Harris. In disbelief, Spartan players didn’t realize the need to foul. All of a sudden, Reggie Upshaw was streaking down the court with the ball for a dunk, only to be fouled by Harris in the process of making the shot.
That turn of events was the death knell, the nail in the coffin, for the heavily favored Spartans.
In one of the most shocking upsets in NCAA tournament history, the Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders numbed the entire nation by defeating Michigan State on Friday, 90-81. It was the eighth victory ever for a No. 15 seed over a No. 2 seed, the fourth such upset since 2012.
The Blue Raiders wasted no time in announcing their arrival to the Big Dance. The Conference USA tournament champions raced out to a 15-2 lead and started 7-for-7 from the field. The Spartans would play catch-up for the rest of the half, trying to chip away at the surprising deficit. Of course, that’s tough to do when the opposition keeps making its shots.
The Blue Raiders would continue to hold onto its lead whenever the Spartans mounted a run. Reggie Upshaw scored 11 in the first half for MTSU while Giddy Potts had eight, including a three when the Spartans cut the lead to 20-18 and a layup when the lead was only 23-22.
Those baskets sparked runs for the Blue Raiders to pull away from the Spartans, who had no answer defensively for MTSU’s outside shooting. In the first half alone, the Blue Raiders shot 8-for-12 from beyond the arc, including Upshaw’s 3-for-5.
Michigan State’s offense started slow, but by the end of the half they were executing at a solid rate. At the half, MSU was shooting 50 percent from the field and from behind the three-point line, but still trailed by six.
Deyonta Davis and Denzel Valentine led the way in the first stanza, each scoring eight points. But Tom Izzo, the Spartan head coach who has built a reputation as a tournament mastermind, had to draw up some kind of answer to the Blue Raid. A solution for the second half had to be for Bryn Forbes to get hot from outside after missing his two shots from the field in the first.
Forbes did indeed get hot after the break, hitting his first three just 48 seconds after play resumed. The senior would score all 14 of his points in the second half. In addition, Matt Costello scored 15 of his game-high 22 points after the break.
All that newfound offense was not enough to even grab a lead from Middle Tennessee State. Seven times in the second half, Michigan State got within a possession of the Blue Raiders. But each time, a basket grew the lead for the underdogs.
One final run for the desperate Spartans came with just more than three minutes left in the game. Eron Harris hit a three-pointer and Colby Wollenman sunk two free throws to cut the lead to one, 77-76. But the Blue Raiders forced two MSU turnovers and scored three straight buckets to put the game out of reach.
The result was not indicative of Michigan State’s offensive performance. The Spartans shot 55.6 percent from the field for the game, 45.8 percent from three. But the defense was a step behind MTSU all day; the Blue Raiders shot 55.9 percent from the field and 57.9 percent from long distance. Even when the Spartan defense contested the Blue Raiders’ shots, the shots would find their way to the bottom of the basket.
This contest ends the careers of four Spartan players, and much earlier than any of them would have expected. Forbes picked up his offensive game in the second stanza but struggled on defense the entire game. Costello was the only consistent performer throughout the day for Izzo’s squad. Wollenman played six minutes after the starters got into foul trouble. And Valentine, the Big Ten Player of the Year, totaled 13 points, 12 assists, and six rebounds in the final game of his illustrious career.
From here, the Spartan program will look to shake off this shell-shocking upset. It will be difficult, however, considering the number of pundits that predicted a Final Four run for the Big Ten champs. In the meantime, a decision looms for Davis, the freshman forward who has received rave reviews as far as his draft stock is concerned. If he declares for the NBA Draft, he will become Izzo’s first one-and-done since Zach Randolph in 2001.
Middle Tennessee State moves on to face No. 10 seed Syracuse on Sunday.